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Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11 by Gerald L. Posner


Rating: (Recommended)


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Gerald Posner takes readers on an exploration of twenty years of fumbled investigations and misplaced priorities in his new book, Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11. The disturbing conclusion: 9/11 did not need to happen. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 6, “Allies at War,” pp. 43-47:

While the Gulf War incensed radicals like bin Laden, it offered the ClA's Counterterrorism Center—which had been struggling—a chance to redeem itself. The CTC's performance during the Gulf War was admirable. Analysts doubled their efforts at reviewing cables and monitoring satellite intercepts of communications searching, for hints of terror attacks. The CTC convinced Director Webster to expel a number of suspected Iraqi businessmen, students, and diplomats. A New Jersey man, Jamal Wariat, was arrested for plotting to kill President Bush, several Palestinian terrorists in New Jersey were arrested, and an Iraqi intelligence agent was apprehended before executing a plot to kill a dissident in California.

But when the brief war finished in January 1991, there was little praise for CTC. Rather, the focus was on why the CIA had failed to notice that Saddam Hussein was building up to invade his neighbor. The Agency was rightly under attack because although an analyst had predicted an invasion the previous June, Webster had not conveyed it to the White House until August I, only hours before Iraq invaded Kuwait. And even as the U.S. geared up for war, the CIA again stumbled, incorrectly predicting that the Soviets, who maintained more than one thousand military advisors in Iraq, would stand against us and complicate the war. Instead, Gorbachev cooperated with the coalition, and for the first time since 1945, the Americans and Soviets were temporarily allies.

Webster resigned in July 1991, only six months after the end of the Gulf War. "It was hard to find the time to attend all the little 'get lost' parties held In the next couple of weeks," recalled one former CIA official.'

Webster was replaced with Robert Gates, the former CIA deputy director, who was serving as National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft's assistant. Only four years earlier, Gates's own nomination to head the CIA had to be withdrawn when he was engulfed with questions about his role in Iran-contra. While those same questions again delayed a vote on Gates for months, the former analyst from the ClA's Directorate of Intelligence was finally approved by a 64—31 Senate vote in November 1991.

From his prior stint at the CIA, Gates knew what could happen if agencies did not share information in complicated investigations. The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI)—known derisively to regulators as the Bank of Crooks and Criminals—was a Pakistan-based bank that looted investors of billions of dollars while simultaneously running an international organized crime operation. BCCI's president was former Saudi intelligence chief Kamal Adham, and besides offering a Federal Express service for narcotics, it dealt in bribes, extortion, and murder, as well as being involved with terrorists and illegal arm shipments. BCCI had facilitated Iraqi smuggling of parts for its nuclear weapons program by providing fake letters of credit and false customs valuations. The Iraqis paid for those documents with cash bribes of bank officials. Another client was terrorist Abu Nidal.

The CIA, although aware of many of BCCI's transgressions for nearly a decade, never shared the information with the FBI or U.S. banking regulators. Instead, the CIA had decided to use BCCI as an asset. The bank eventually provided details about its Iraqi transactions, as well as allowing the CIA to use its Panama City branch to disburse Agency payments to Panama's strong man, Manuel Noriega. Even the anti-Sandinista rebels were covertly funded through a BCCI branch. Some CIA officials, however, were bothered by the extent of the bank's crime spree and the arrogance that allowed bank officers to boast they were the "black network."

Gates had been one of the CIA officials troubled by BCCI's brazen activities. In 1988, when he was the deputy director, he had informed U.S. Customs about BCCI's money-laundering role for drug cartels. But neither the CIA nor Customs notified the FBI, which had sole responsibility for investigating domestic bank fraud. The CIA also knew that BCCI secretly owned a Washington bank. First American, but again did not alert the Bureau.

As Gates took control at the CIA, the Agency was trying to weather some blistering congressional criticism for its mishandling of the BCCI matter, which had recently become public. Gates began to implement policies that would ensure that no matter what the ClA's Interests were in an operation, the FBI would be notified of possible illegalities.

In February 1992, Gates also publicly backed a plan proposed by Oklahoma senator—and Senate Intelligence Committee chairman—David Boren to "bring about the most sweeping changes in the U.S. intelligence community since the CIA was created in 1947." Boren proposed a National Intelligence Center (NIC), with a new cabinet-level post as director—to whom both the CIA and FBI directors would report. Few agents in the CIA or in the FBI, however, relished the idea of having a super-agency monitor their efforts. Leaks to the press from those unhappy with NIC soon raised a specter of a national secret police resulting in government intrusion into daily life with a loss of privacy for many Americans' Boren backpedaled. As his plan died. Gates proposed a slightly modified one, but it also went nowhere.

No sooner had the Boren and Gates plans been shelved than a new scandal broke, caused by the continuing lack of cooperation between the FBI and CIA. It was about another bank, this time the Atlanta branch of Italy's Banco Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL). Since 1974, the CIA, MI6 (British Intelligence), and Mossad had a joint project called Operation Babylon to infiltrate Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. In 1981, when the Western powers feared that the Iraqis were getting close to developing a bomb, the CIA used satellite intelligence to guide Israeli warplanes on a surgical strike against Iraq's main reactor at Osirak. While that strike put the Iraqi program back ten years, Hussein remained defiantly committed to his nuclear program. Much of the material Iraq needed was purchased through a struggling British machine tools company, Matrix-Churchill, which the Iraqis had covertly bought with BNL funds in 198 7. Most of that money came from the BNL branch in Atlanta; that was fortuitous, because under U.S. law, since the bank was foreign-owned, the CIA had the authority to intercept all its communications.

By 1989, Operation Babylon, with its secret window through the Atlanta BNL branch, had penetrated the Iraqi nuclear program and was able to monitor whatever progress Saddam made toward acquiring a bomb. But the fifteen-year effort to track the Iraqis was virtually scuttled in 1989 when the FBI raided the BNL branch in Atlanta.

Independent of the CIA, the FBI had focused on the BNL bank only four months before the raid. In the aftermath of the S&L bank failures, there was pressure In the Bureau to concentrate on financial crimes. When the Atlanta FBI office was tipped off by a disgruntled BNL employee about "off-the-books" loans, the Bureau jumped on the case. To ensure they were not disrupting anyone else's investigation, the FBI checked with a local Customs office, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Attorney, and even the Treasury Department. No one, however, evidently thought of putting out a feeler to the CIA.

When the FBI stormed the twentieth-floor suite of BNL on Friday, August 4, 1989, they seized the file cabinets and secured all paperwork before any could be destroyed. They even found a set of secret gray books. That evidence revealed that not only had BNL illegally loaned more than $4 billion to Iraq, but it was funding Iraqi nuclear procurement. Because of the espionage implications, the Atlanta FBI office immediately apprised the Bureau's counterintelligence desk in Washington of the developments. Finally concerned that they might have stumbled onto a CIA operation, the U.S. attorney in Atlanta inquired whether the Agency had any role or interest in BNL. The CIA decided not to respond.

After the Gulf War, the FBI complained to Congress that not only had the CIA permitted Iraqi agents to leave the United States rather than be arrested by the Bureau for their role in the BNL fiasco, but the Agency had insisted that Matrix-Churchill's Cleveland office be permitted to remain open for the duration of the military action against Iraq, even though that office was integral to the financial fraud uncovered by the Bureau. As the congressional probe widened, the CIA admitted it had withheld documents, but said it did so at the request of the FBI. The FBI director, William Sessions, responded by announcing that the Bureau was undertaking its own probe of the ClA's role in the BNL matter. Three days later, the Justice Department announced that Sessions was himself being investigated for ethics violations, and a series of anonymous government officials began denigrating his competence to lead the Bureau.

Iraq-Gate, as it was dubbed by the press, dogged George Bush in his reelection bid, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore made good use of it politically. The CIA, whose image had been battered, particularly by the news that it had withheld critical documents from a criminal investigation, was incensed that the FBI had stumbled into their operation and not given any warning. Many in the Bureau, meanwhile, were infuriated that the CIA had ignored their early requests for information and then had gone on the offensive and hobbled the FBI's criminal probe of BNL. By the beginning of the Clinton administration, January 1993, there was deep-seated animosity between officials at both agencies. The timing for such disharmony could not have been worse.

Posner’s journalistic skills allow him to present this book as a series of investigative stories, linking pieces together to make a coherent case. Try to get by the annoying asterisks and receive the message from Why America Slept.

Steve Hopkins, November 24, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the December 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: America Slept.htm


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